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the human rights of victims of terrorism

Joan Lurie Goldberg, ICJW representative to UN NY, attended the UN Conference on the Human Rights of Victims of Terrorism on February 11, 2016.

This was a full day conference hosted by the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF) Office of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre in collaboration with the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism (Special Rapporteur). 

The UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy was adopted by member states in September, 2006. But, often, the victims and those who support them have not been successful in “finding a place in the counter-terrorism debate”. Hence the need for this conference with the objective of contributing to policy and legal development, on the national level, concerning human rights of victims of terrorism.

The Opening Session was chaired by Jeffrey Feltman, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Chair of the CTITF. Mr. Feltman stressed that we need a holistic approach to the rights of victims of terror. The Secretary General has a new plan of action with 70 recommendations. These emphasize confidentiality and witness protection to bolster the legal rights of victims.

Each member state should adopt a policy against violent extremism and for the rights of victims. (Author’s note: “violent extremism” is UN speak for terrorism and for Islamic terrorism.)

H. E. Mr. Mohamed Ali Alhakim, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Iraq to the UN spoke of the effect of Daesh (or ISIL) on Iraq. The fierce assault by Daesh is against all sectors of Iraqi society; it dismantles national unity and spreads sedition. The targets are civilians and infrastructure. Innocents are used as human shields in the fighting. Daesh has kidnapped and sold girls and women. Daesh imposes their extremist ideology which is against Islam.
The government is fighting back:
 Counterterrorism led by Iraqi armed forces
 Safe corridors for escaping refugees
 Government is working toward national unity with special attention to victims
 A lifelong pension is supplied to victims along with housing or land.
BUT there is a need for UN and international support; counterterrorism is the responsibility of all nations. Delay in support makes terrorists stronger. The biggest disaster is in Mosul where the help of the UN is urgently needed.

A speaker from the Spanish mission substituted for the Ambassador who was ill. He discussed UN support for victims:
 There is a UN portal where victims can tell their stories; this helps put a human face on hatred and its effects
 When Spain was President of the Security Council, testimony of victims was heard by the SC for the first time.
 We should maintain focus on victims; their numbers are increasing and they continue to need help.

Mr. Ben Emmerson, the Special Rapporteur, was the next speaker. He related that it has taken four years to reach this point where human rights of victims and states’ obligations to them can be discussed here. The sheer scale of terrorism today makes it impossible to focus on individual victims.

There is a central issue in determining when human rights violations have occurred. Many countries and NGOs believe that ONLY STATES CAN VIOLATE HUMAN RIGHTS. It is then not possible for individual, non-state sponsored terrorists to be prosecuted for human rights violations. Human rights law must keep pace and change to apply to non-state actors so that the rights of victims can be protected by their criminal justice systems. The current status is uneven; in some countries victims who testify are protected against reprisals but this is not true everywhere. Similarly, restitution is provided in some countries but not others.

Session 1 – The obligation on public authorities to use reasonable care in preventing and responding to acts of terrorism.

Chair – Ms. Sue O’Sullivan, Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, Canada.
In her introductory remarks, Ms. O’Sullivan described her mandate; since she reports to the Minister of Justice of Canada, she has more influence than the usual ombudsman. She also has had a more than 30 year career as a police officer including serving as deputy chief of police in Ottawa.

Victims need information on their rights, support and to know that they are protected. This session will deal with how states can be effective in response to terror while also protecting life and human rights.

Mr. Andrew Clapham, Professor of Public International Law, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies declared that terrorists do violate the human rights of their victims.

The GA has recently approved an Arms Treaty some of whose provisions deal with terrorism.
 Each exporter of arms must assess the risk that terrorists will get the arms they are exporting. If there is such a risk, then the GA should monitor the situation.
 If a state is involved in a fight against terrorism, it has the obligation to protect lives. The state can be held accountable if it is not careful enough.

The danger today is that coming down hard on terrorism may preclude using precautions to prevent collateral damage. We need more education and training for security personnel and provisions for victims and their families to demand reparations if proper precautions are not taken.

The next two speakers, Ms. Hamsatu Alhaji Nashe Allamin from Voices of the Voiceless People (Nigeria) and Ms. Mary Fletchet, founder of Voices of September 11, both discussed the plight of victims and the need for help.

In Nigeria, there is a long history of terrorism by Boko Haram in eastern Nigeria. Kidnapping of children, attempts to implement Sharia law, obstruction of efforts to improve medical care and other atrocities earned Boko Haram the name Taliban of Nigeria. When the central government has tried to step in and help, the efforts were often unsuccessful. A Joint Task Force of Army, Customs and other agencies was formed to fight the insurgents but the effort failed due to corruption.

In 2013 the government declared a state of emergency in the three eastern states.
 All civil rights disappeared
 Young men were taken by the government and mistreated so the opposition to the national military simply increased
 This mechanism that was supposed to protect the country has failed.
 Amnesty International has called for the prosecution of many government officials for their misbehavior in the fight against Boko Haram

Finally, a volunteer group, the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) was formed and has been successful in getting Boko Haram out of the cities but Boko Haram remains powerful and vengeful in rural areas.

The lesson of all this, according to the speaker, is when Counterterrorism measures abuse civil rights, they are unlawful and hand propaganda victories to the terrorists. She asks for help from the UN and the Secretary General. CJTF people are disappearing and children are being tortured and killed. The election of 2015 brought some hope but little response to help victims. There is a famine because, for the past three years, there has been little farming. The international community must help; the Nigerian government is ineffectual or worse.

Voices of 9/11 was started by Ms. Fetchet who lost a son in the terrorists’ attacks of 9/11/2001. She is a professional social worker and has started this organization to provide support to victims and their families. Voices has also worked on commemoration and advocated for the Memorial Museum. They collected 70,000 relevant photos and gave them to the Museum.

The new paradigm of the organization is to work on long term support for families. Different people heal differently and some will need more help than others.

What can the government do?
 Advocate for measures to prevent terrorism
 Prepare in advance to respond if prevention fails
 Enforce existing laws
 Ensure protection of victims from reprisals

I left at this point but there were three other sessions dealing with rights of victims within the criminal justice system, reparations for victims and role of victims in prevention of future acts of violent extremism.